A few months ago, while writing Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?, I was able to watch the movie Risen, which releases today on DVD. It was fortuitous as the film captures, in cinematic and artistic form, some key points that I emphasize in my book.
Prior to seeing Risen, I was concerned that the film might fall into a some of the traps that trip up many films made from a Christian perspective. One of those is a certain gauzy piety, which can make real people and events appear as if they exist and occur in another realm and world, almost completely divorced from the grind and grit of reality. Another common flaw is a heavy-handed preachiness, in which a central character launches into an Al Pacino-like soliloquy in which All Is Explained, thus eliminating any real sense of narrative and mystery. A third problem in some Christian cinema is poor production, or uneven acting and writing.
While viewers of good will can and will disagree about certain details in Risen, I think the movie both avoids those three problems and, at times, has moments of real cinematic brilliance. Right from the start, the film is rooted in the dusty and often violent chaos of first century Palestine under Roman rule. There is no romanticizing or sugarcoating of the poverty, brutality, and fear faced by so many ordinary Jews of the time. Death and difficulty are common fare, and they have a deep and lasting impact on Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), the Roman military tribune who is tasked by Pilate to investigate the startling disappearance of a the body of the crucified Jesus (Cliff Curtis).
Secondly, while there is plenty of dialogue—the film is presented (at least on one level) as a sort of a detective story, so much discussion ensues—there really isn’t much if any preaching. Even when Clavius and Jesus have a conversation toward the end of the film, the point is usually more about posing the right questions than providing tidy answers. It’s not that the film doesn’t point to good answers. Rather, it’s approach is somewhat similar to novelist Walker Percy’s tactic of being “diagnostic” rather than didactic. And, in fact, the film has a strong existential quality to it, as it begins and ends with Clavius alone and in the desert, still pondering the great Mystery he has encountered through a seemingly ordinary mystery.
The production and acting in Risen are excellent, and Fiennes, in particular, delivers an impressive performance. The movie, in the end, rests squarely on his shoulders, and he conveys a serious mixture of Roman roughness and spiritual restlessness. He is meant, it seems to me, to represent the serious modern skeptic, who has profound doubts but is also open to something more than just a short life without any real meaning.
At the start of my book, I emphasize that the Resurrection has, from the start, both scandalized and divided. It really is an all-or-nothing proposition, as Benedict XVI indicates in his second book on Jesus of Nazareth: “The Christian faith stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead.” The Apostle Paul famously told the Christians in Corinth, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). But the scandal of the Resurrection is not some sort of free-floating and mystical event, as it is deeply and eternally connected to the Incarnation and the identity of Jesus as Incarnate Word and Messiah:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor 1:22-24)
There have been many theories about what “really” happened on that Sunday morning in the garden two thousand years ago, and I discuss all of them in detail. But there are two points, in particular, that stand out to me in reflecting again on Risen.
First, there is the simply fact that something happened. Something astounding and transformative. G.K. Chesterton, in remarking upon Creation in The Everlasting Man, wrote:
Nobody can imagine how nothing could turn into something. Nobody can get an inch nearer to it by explaining how something could turn into something else. It is really far more logical to start by saying ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth’ even if you only mean ‘In the beginning some unthinkable power began some unthinkable process.’ For God is by its nature a name of mystery, and nobody ever supposed that man could imagine how a world was created any more than he could create one.
In other words, people often get caught up in explaining what happened rather than going even deeper and asking, “Why was there something rather than nothing?” In some recent interviews about my book, I’ve referred to the Resurrection of Christ as “the Big Bang within history”. While scientists and others ponder the material mysteries of the Big Bang, there is the even greater matter of the metaphysical mystery. It is an existential mystery: why does anything exist at all? Even if we can explain the physical reactions of the Big Bang, we are still left with the question of why creation really is. Why was and is there something rather than nothing?
In a similar way, the sudden birth and continued existence of the Church, following the devastating and deadly blow of the Crucifixion, raises similar questions. Some scholars obsess so much over details about various early Christian communities, the origins of New Testament texts, or the influence of this apostle or that apostle, they often give short shrift to the question: “Why did any of it happen at all?” And when they do, they often come up with theories and answers that don’t account adequately for the Mystery involved, which is at the very heart of the New Testament. After all, the Apostle Peter’s sermon at Pentecost was not about a moral code or wishful platitudes, but about a Man and an Event:
And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know– this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. …. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens; but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet.’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:21-24; 32-36)
Christ crucified. Christ risen. Christ is Lord. That this the essential message, again and again, of the Apostles and the Evangelists. Which brings me to the second point: it’s not enough to simply say, “Christ rose.” We must also profess, “Christ is Lord.” As I show throughout my book, there are a surprising number of people—some of them claiming to be Christian—who acknowledge a sort of Resurrection, but will not confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
As Fr. Alexander Schmemann noted several decades ago, the essence of secularism is not a refusal to believe in God, but a refusal to worship God. Lip service, as the Apostle Paul told the Christian in Rome, is not enough: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Risen, at its best, is an invitation to ponder the reality of the Resurrection and the Mystery of God’s saving work.